Holding Space for Students

Editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome Stephanie Sendaula to the ACRLog team. Stephanie is an On-Call Reference Librarian at Mercer County Community College, West Windsor campus. Her professional background includes a transition from librarianship to publishing and back again, with a sideline in freelance writing. Her research interests include outreach, instruction, and information literacy.

We’re in the midst of summer and in anticipation of the beginning of the next academic year, I’ve been reconsidering the concept of space. This is a subject that has been covered on the ACRLog earlier this year, when Maura Smale asked how we can better shift services and spaces to meet students’ needs.

I have been thinking along the same lines, with a specific focus on how the library can meet the needs of community college students who are in a transitional stage in their lives. In my case, I’ve been seriously considering the needs of community college students who may be the first in their family to attend college, who are often living at home while working part-time and attending school part-time, who are often responsible for caregiving for older relatives and younger siblings in addition to managing their coursework, and who often speak English as a second or sometimes third language. 

I keep these nuances in mind since I remember how I felt as an undergraduate student, intimidated by the imposing rows upon rows of stacks. I think about how overwhelming it can be to walk into a library and immediately see imposing desks for reference and circulation, and not know where to turn because you can’t differentiate one from the other. I consider how intimidating it might be to approach a desk and ask a question, even if library staff happen to look like you.

I also consider the recent update from the ACRL Academic Library Trends and Statistics Survey, which was discussed at a session at ALA Annual in Washington, DC in June 2022. Among other figures, the survey cited the decline in reference desk visits while circulation checkouts remained stable, as well as a decline in the circulation of print materials while the circulation of digital materials increased. That also rings true for my experience as a reference librarian at a community college.

How does this tie into space? Reflecting on the needs of the community I serve, I am often wondering how the library can better utilize space to serve students’ needs, both physical and virtual. For students who might be apprehensive to visit the library, how can we meet them where they are? In terms of physical space, are we taking advantage of our limited physical space in order to house collections that are relevant and up-to-date?

Thinking of virtual space, do we have enough technological resources in order to accommodate the number of students who lack a private computer at home and rely on library computers or cellphones in order to complete their assignments? When thinking about space, I’m also considering the needs of students who physically visit the library, but frequently utilize options such as chat reference and libguides.

These questions are often rhetorical since, similar to other libraries, there is always something that we could be doing more of, or something that we could be doing better. The challenge is often: Where do we start? What small steps can we take in order to ensure that students feel the library is an approachable space, both in terms of physical appearance and online resources? What can I, as a reference librarian, do in order to ensure students that library staff are there to assist them when they don’t know where to turn? 

My answer to this question is to develop radical empathy–a social justice concept of actively striving to better understand and share the feelings of others–and to consider how I would approach the library if I were a student (and how I approached the library when I was an undergraduate student). To be honest, I often avoided the library since I was often scared to approach, and I was overwhelmed by the numerous virtual options to connect with library staff. It was often easier to ask a friend for help, and have them guide me to wherever it was that I needed to go, whether that was finding a specific course reserve or navigating a public computer.

Thinking back to the ACRL survey, I’m also keeping this in mind as more students check out items digitally instead of walking across campus, depending on where they’re coming from, in order to find course materials. It’s not just space, it’s also time and convenience. We’re all stretched thin, and that includes students, who are juggling multiple responsibilities at once during a difficult time in their lives–an ongoing pandemic and, for many students I serve, a move toward four-year institutions or an entry into the workforce. Space can mean a lot of things, but it often comes back to, How does the library hold space for the students it serves?